Queer in Latin America Luz Robinson Final Paper
Race, gender and sexuality play important roles in structuring queer identities in Latin America. Queer studies are a new field and the majority of the knowledge that exists has been developed by Western scholars in the U.S. and in Europe. Since the existing literature on queer studies relies heavily on a Eurocentric lens it fails to capture the complexities of a queer gender and sexual identity in Latin America. Latinx and Black scholars have begun to introduce a different lens through which we can theorize about queerness in Latin America through understanding examples of gestures, ephemera and coloniality. Different social constructs like race, gender, sexuality and immigration status shape queerness in Latin America and Latinx communities. It is fundamental to queer theory that Latinx and Black scholars are included when developing new theoretical concepts to fully understand the variability that exists within this region and the growing population of Latinx immigrants in the United States.
Latin American scholars have argued that mestizaje, the mixing of different races, would eventually create a cosmic race that would blend the best characteristics from the African, Indigenous, and European ancestors of the region. Miscegenation has led many to believe that racism is uncommon in Latin America, yet legacies of colonialism still remain today and a hierarchy of racialized aesthetics exists. In “Queen for a Day: Transformistas, Beauty Queens, and the Performance of Femininity in Venezuela”, Belleza Venezolana is best explained as an ideology of beauty that is rooted in coloniality. According to Ochoa, the production of Belleza Venezolana is joined together with 4 other elements: nation, race, media, and marketing. Miscegenation and hybridity are important components in the ways that experts explain the success of Miss Venezuela on the global stage. The ideology of criollismo is exhibited over the bodies of misses and represents non-white racial categories while at the same time glorifying white European beauty ideals. Ochoa explains notions of Venezuelan beauty through key terms such as modernity, sanitary citizenship and raw material.
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The history of the miss figure has represented modernity for the nation, in this context, modernity is represented by black and indigenous erasure. The miss figure represents modernity through black erasure because “blackness is what women must ‘overcome’ in order to become successful beauty queens in Venezuela” (Ochoa, p.53). The miss is also represented as a sanitary citizen because she embodies both exoticism (blackness and indigeneity) and modernity (whiteness). This notion of citizenship is rooted in coloniality because black and indigenous people are viewed as “incapable of adopting this modern medical relationship to the body, hygiene, illness, and healing- or who refuse to do so- become unsanitary subjects” (Ochoa, p.40). The misses are sanitary citizens because they are they embody Eurocentric values of beauty, which further endorses the idea that being the ideal citizen depends greatly on your closeness to physical Eurocentric aesthetics. As the ideal sanitary citizen, the miss figure mediates racial ideology for the national market, and this is part of how she accomplishes modernity. Belleza venezolana is also referred to as a type of raw material meaning that it “can be formed for the global market, whatever it tastes happen to be at any particular moment. The flip side of this kind of ultimate racial flexibility is the inflexibility of the Eurocentric aesthetics that dictate beauty in Venezuela, in particular the explicit rejection of what are considered ‘African’ features” (Ochoa, p.34).
Race is complex and racialization in Latin America creates power imbalances that can be seen clearly through Venezuela’s beauty pageant culture. Racial ambiguity and the internalized desire to achieve whiteness in Latin America is based on scientific racism and colonial legacies. Racialization facilitates the marginalization of queer identities that embrace black and indigenous features and although the example is made clear through Venezuela’s beauty pageants it is a tendency shared with other countries in Latin America. In Venezuela’s beauty pageant culture and other nation building projects, mulataness is commodified through black erasure and an aspiration towards whiteness.
Gender performance and queer identities in Latin America express gender non-normativity in different ways when compared to the United States. Locas, travesties, transsexuals and other trans gender identities that exist within the region propose a third gender outside of the traditional binary gender. Loca is used in some Latin American countries to describe a gender-nonconforming homosexual man but it can also include other gender identities. For example, in Argentina, loca can be used to describe trans- or cis- women sex workers, while in Cuba it can be used to describe promiscuous cis women (Gonzalez, p.123). Theorizing about gender identity in Latin America is challenging for Western scholars because although the connection between craziness and homosexuality is evident in the translation, many miss the fact that the term loca is “not only used for but by gender-nonconforming homosexual people born as men” (Gonzalez, p.123). The term loca may have begun as an insult but it has been re-signified by gender minorities bringing it closer to the English term genderqueer. There has been an increase for transgender normativity through legal recognition in countries like Argentina with the Gender Identity Law, Ecuador with My Gender on My ID campaign, and Brazil with access to universal healthcare for transexuals. However, “nonnormatively gendered subjects who resist or fail at homo- and gender-normative assimilation… are still excluded from the imagined community of the nation and are both less visible and more vulnerable to erasure” (Gonzalez, p.124).
Queer theory is used to rethink and challenge views of normativity and power dynamics related to gender expression and sexuality. Although certain gender identities in Latin America are more fluid they still experience pressure to conform to normative ideas from the West and this pressure creates a power imbalance. For example, Brazil’s universal health-care system is accessible to transsexuals because it is understood that individuals that are trans are at a higher risk of mutilation and suicide because their gender does not align with their birth sex. However, the availability of medical assistance for transsexuals is limited with only four hospitals in Brazil performing sex- reassignment surgery and requiring a long process of psychological evaluations. Transsexuals in Brazil are “caught in the double bind of either submitting to the pathologization of their identity as abnormal or opting to reject diagnosis and remain ineligible for both treatment and the medical insurance that would cover it” (Jarrin, p.359). On the other hand, the travesti identity is completely made invisible within the health-care system because they do not desire sex-reassignment surgery and may only require hormone therapy and breast implants. The exclusion of the travesti identity in the health-care system represents the preference over binary genders that align with the individual’s sex even if reassignment is used, an understanding of trans that is rooted in Anglocentricity. The travesti identity is “considered ineligible at hospitals that provide sex-reassignment surgeries because they with wish to retain their sexual organs and thus do not fit within the normative biomedical definition of transsexuality… Publicly funded hospitals that offer plastic surgeries to low-income Brazilians refuse to provide the same services to travesties, despite having the professed aim to providing equal access to all Brazilian citizens” (Jarrin, p.358).
Another example of transforming the body and performing gender is explained in Ochoa’s book. Ochoa interviews transformistas, misses, and plastic surgeons about transforming the body through medical procedures. All three view the body as transformable, as something of nature than can be improved through modern medicine. Transformistas were more tolerant of pursuing painful self-administered procedures. However, transformistas do not have access to all the resources misses have and as a result “transformistas use various technologies to sacar el cuerpo, to bring out desirable features in their bodies as part of their feminizing process. The transformistas… used olive oil, baby oil, saline solution, and water injections to round out breasts and hips…Transformistas have developed a folk medicine around hormone administration that involves large and frequent doses of various forms of birth control available over the counter in Venezuela” (Ochoa, p.162). This feminizing process they experience is treated with shock and outrage which excludes them from being considered a therapeutic subject and delegitimizes their experience by refusing to medically assist them in their feminizing process. It is important to understand how Anglo definitions of transsexuality are based on American knowledge production and that expressions of gender-identity are different in Latin America. Anglo definitions are currently used to limit certain individuals from transforming their bodies.
Migration & Diasporas
Sex tourism and immigration are responsible for moving people with certain sexual and gender identities to more “tolerant” spaces. The extent to which these nonnormative identities are tolerated depends on other social constructs such as class and race. In Cuba and Mexico, sex tourism has become a prevalent force driving Western gay tourists to pursue racialized and exoticized relations. Cuba’s post-soviet climate opened the door to the commodification of affect and transnational kinships. A transnational system of queer kinship allows wealthy gay tourists to create kinships and alternative families abroad. This type of kinship appeals to gays from the US and Europe specifically where discourses on creating alternative families exist. Urban gays “challenged the idea that ‘blood’ was the only way a family could be made. Similar to urban gays in the United States, queer tourists who adopted the role of family members with male sex workers saw families they chose as acts of self- determination and creativity. Although some foreign gay tourists were able to invite Cuban boyfriends or hustlers out of the country…. the patronage relationship functioned only as long as the foreigner could dictate the terms of distribution of goods and cash” (Stout, p.151). The transnational system of queer kinship continues the legacy of colonialism by creating a population dependent on the demands of US and European tourists. The socialist dream fails through the commodification of sex and affect by creating a capitalist, transnational system of queer kinship. Wealthy tourists break the monotony of daily Cuban life and offer feelings of excessive luxury in a world of scarcity. The tourists became patrons of the hustlers and their families by sending remittances. These relationships are complicated since hustlers are desperate and depend on financial support from tourists to survive. Affect is commodified and material objects are often sold on the black market for hard cash, and despite the idea that the consumption of Cuban affect is a way to experience the “real Cuba,” this experience is exclusive to White Cubans.
Queer tourism in Mexico has also become popular among U.S. tourists’ due to its proximity and highly racialized subjects. This demand for sex tourism is transforming Mexico’s homosexual subculture (ambiente) to align with the interests of queer tourism. The relationship between queer tourism and Mexican sexuality is complex as it includes both sexual colonization and sexual liberation. Homosexuality in Mexico is “defined not by the biological sex of participants but rather by the gendered role that they perform in the sexual act” (Cantu, p.98). Lesbian identities have been historically invisible in Mexico, like in other Latin American countries, yet the literature on them also focuses on the role of non-normative gender performance rather than on sexual behavior. The increase of queer tourism can be seen in the country through the development and commodification of Mexican “gay” culture and the rise of the LGBT movement. Gay bars in Mexico are relatively new and tolerance zones (zonas de tolerancia) have emerged as queer spaces that are both gendered and sexualized. These zones exist along the U.S.-Mexico border but also in other cities like Guadalajara and Puerto Vallarta. The term colonial desire is used to express both “attraction and repulsion” (Cantu, p.106) and it refers to the racialization of Mexican gay men. The tolerance zones are not open to everyone, only queer Mexicans of at least middle-class can be found in these space, as they are believed to be sophisticated enough to spend time with tourists. These spaces, although in Mexico, are shaped and dictated by queer tourists through their financial advantages.
Mexican gay men often believe that moving to the U.S. will improve their quality of life because U.S. culture is portrayed as tolerant and accepting of homosexuality. Many do not consider the role of immigration status as both a real and imaginary boundary used to marginalize “foreign” subjects. Undocumented Mexican immigrants experience migration in three phases, (1) separation from a familiar society, (2) transition and (3) incorporation into the new society (Cantu, p.33). However, when undocumented immigrants become labeled “illegal” they may never fully incorporate themselves into the U.S. because of social and structural barriers. However, the author points out that if a Mexican man is “marked as marginal before migrating, then a very real social separation may precede the actual physical separation of migration” (Cantu, p.33). This social separation felt back home in Mexico may be the driving force to emigrate in the first place, as the U.S. is imagined to be more tolerant of others. Also, if a Mexican immigrant is “outed” after moving to the U.S. then a new social separation may occur where they become isolated from family members or friends in the U.S. and back home. Gay immigrants can remain in the transition phase regardless of their immigration status, limiting their opportunities and furthering their marginalization in a new society. The gay immigrant is an “outsider in more than one respect, for as an ‘erotic minority’ he or she has transgressed society’s moral, sexual, and even gender borders” (Cantu, p.34).
It is important to examine structural issues like homophobia, sexism, poverty and racism to better understand how the social spaces of gay Latino men relates to social inequalities, including their higher risk for HIV. Latino culture is viewed as deficient and deviant by westerners and this perception stresses that immigrants should incorporate themselves into American culture through a cultural intervention. However, American culture is mostly racist, homophobic and sexist which creates boundaries as to who can be accepted and further marginalizes gay immigrants. For example, the structural issues of poverty and racism are evident when understanding the prevalence of AIDS among gay Mexican immigrants. While “homophobia and sexism are probably linked to resistance to discussing homosexuality, such resistance may also be linked to social class, education, and the availability of HIV literature in Spanish” (Cantu, p.161). It can be understood that the United States offers an illusion to many gay immigrants that they can assimilate to American culture and be fully accepted. Unfortunately, the acceptance of an immigrant depends on the intersection of that person’s identity. In cases of racialized, gender non-conforming and sexually fluid individuals they can experience more repression in the U.S than they would in their birth country.
Queer identities in Latin America are different to that of the U.S. and other Western countries. When theorizing about gender and sexuality in a region that strives to reach notions of modernity it is important to keep in mind that these social constructs are highly racialized. Nation building projects are heavily concentrated on achieving modernity in this region, which is rooted in colonialism and scientific racism. Latin American countries commodify mulataness/mestizaje by performing whiteness and negating African and Indigenous features. Another particularity is that, Anglo definitions for gender identities do not translate properly in Latin America where locas, travestis and transformistas do not fit a gender binary. Western knowledge regarding how transsexuals should be medically treated excludes other gender identities from the liberty to transform their bodies. Western countries like The U.S. are often portrayed as accepting of sexual and gender minorities, but in reality, they discriminate against immigrants and other racialized individuals who do not follow homo- or gender normativity. Queer studies must analyze the impact of coloniality to fully understand how race, gender, sexuality and even immigration status are used to further the marginalization of Latinx individuals whose identities intersect across these constructs.
- Ochoa, M. (2014). Queen for a Day: Transformistas, Beauty Queens, and the Performance of Femininity in Venezuela. Duke University Press.
- Gonzalez, M. M. (2014). La Loca. Duke University Press.
- Jarrin, A. (2016). Untranslatable Subjects: Travesti Access to Public Health Care in Brazil. Duke University Press.
- Stout, N. (2014). After Love: Queer Intimacy and Erotic Economies in Post-Soviet Cuba. Duke University Press.
- Cantu, L. (2009). The Sexuality of Migration: Border Crossings and Mexican Immigrant Men. NYU Press.”